Why 'Astro City' Is the Best Superhero Comic of the 21st Century

Astro City is hitting two significant milestones very soon. This week, the 50th issue of its ongoing Vertigo Comics series will be released, as the series returns to the beloved story “The Nearness of You” first published in 1996. Then the series will end with Astro City #52, wrapping up an ongoing background story that has run throughout the current iteration. It’s a moment for both celebration and sadness for fans of the series who have been receiving a monthly dose of the series since it relaunched under the Vertigo banner in 2013.

The series won’t be gone totally, as writer and co-creator Kurt Busiek has already announced that future Astro City stories would be published as original graphic novels (OGNs). Yet it still stands out as a significant moment in an independent superhero series that has run for more than two decades. It’s a time to reflect on a favorite title of both critics and fans. Astro City isn’t just a well-loved comic, but one of the absolute best series of the 21st century thus far. Eisner and Harvey Awards aside, the comic presents an approach and quality that distinguishes it as one of the best superhero comics of all time. If there’s any series that sets the course for superheroes in the 21st century, it’s Astro City.

Astro City World
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

A Grand World for Everyone

Astro City loves the history and expanse of the superhero genre without becoming a full-blown homage. While it appreciates the many concepts at DC Comics and Marvel Comics, it does not reach the point of reverence as it reinterprets concepts and combines ideas to become something greater. Within these stories, it’s possible to find all things made fresh through the eyes of Kurt Busiek and Brent Erik Anderson. It is not simply contained to the most significant superheroes. Astro City tackles a variety of genres, periods, and styles of story within its pages. It is engaged with the plasticity of the superhero genre and the wide variety of themes and stories it can address.

That approach reveals the ageless quality of the best superhero stories. A perfect example of this is the Furst Family (who make their home on Mount Kirby). They are an obvious allegory of the Fantastic Four, but the recreation is more focused on concepts than direct copies. Characters do not all make a one-to-one comparison, but the emphasis on family and exploration make the connection far better than more obvious examples elsewhere. Through this family, Astro City has shown how the Fantastic Four can remain every bit as relevant to modern readers, no matter their connection to Fantastic Four.

Perhaps the most important element of this setting’s composition is how well it reflects our own world. Both the inhabitants and heroes of Astro City are as diverse as the people of Denver, Colorado. Heroes come from a variety of backgrounds, presenting a believable variety of class, racial, and other backgrounds. The many civilian heroes and bystanders of the series look like the passersby of any major city. Astro City, more than any other mainstream superhero universe, reflects the world it attempts to inspire.

Astro City The Dark Age
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

No Single Model for Stories

There is a trend in modern superhero comics that pushes for stories to fill a collection, attempting to connect the direct market with the bookstore market. This is a concept that Astro City has largely rejected. Its stories have always taken precisely as long as they require. Whether it has come in the form of an ongoing series or mini-series, Astro City has always been collected after the stories have been completed with the page counts of individual issues being the primary restriction on storytelling.

Busiek and Anderson have told epics like “The Dark Age”, OGN-sized features like “The Tarnished Angel”, and more single issue and two-part stories than anything else. The defining aspect of each story though is that it takes precisely as much space as it needs, no more and no less, like the wizard of comics pacing. It is easy to imagine a recent tale like “Who’s A Good Dog” filling an entire collection, but it was distilled into a fast-paced, decade-spanning story in only two issues instead. This approach to appropriate pacing above all else is a much needed lesson for all of superhero comics at the moment.

Astro City The Nearness of You
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Putting the “Hero” Before the “Super”

When new readers are told about what makes Astro City so special, the most common thing they will hear is that it emphasizes ordinary people. That’s not true across the board. There are plenty of stories that feature analogs of Superman and Batman. Yet just as often readers will meet an accountant or emergency call line operator. This points to the essential truth of Astro City: There are no small players.

Every instance of heroism is treated with gravitas and importance. The saving of a single life is every bit as tremendous as the saving of the planet. Busiek and Anderson have emphasized a humanist perspective on courage in which the overcoming of fear and brave accomplishments are all worthy of acknowledgement. They have tapped into one of the most important elements of the superhero genre, aspiring to raise up all people rather than lionize the actions of a few special individuals.

Their approach to every character emphasizes that no one is above anyone else either. The villains of Astro City are often very sympathetic when given their own stories. Even the greatest heroes have fears and conflicting desires that make them relatable. There is no one individual who stands above the rest of humanity, and Astro City makes it clear that we are all equally capable of heroism.

That is what makes Astro City the best superhero story of the 21st century. It captures the many facets of the superhero genre we love, approaches stories from a wide variety of styles, and, most importantly, focuses on how we can all be heroes. The model for Astro City is to tell the best possible stories of humanity overcoming adversity in the best possible fashion. It is a seemingly simple model, but obviously a difficult one to perfect. Astro City is the model for what superhero comics can be at their absolute best. It’s a series very much worth celebrating.